Over Memorial Day Weekend, New York Museums Scored Their Highest Visitor Numbers Since the Pandemic Started

Thousands flocked to the Met, MoMA, and other institutions over the holiday weekend.

Visitors wearing facemasks look at paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 'The Met' in New York City on February 9, 2021. Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images.
Visitors at paintings at the Met on February 9, 2021. Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images.

In New York, Memorial Day weekend concluded the month of May with three rather cold, rainy days—and yet that didn’t stop museum goers, buoyed by relaxed health restrictions and pent-up social energy, from getting out and seeing art, apparently.

Visitors flocked to many of New York’s major museums last weekend in numbers not seen since before the onset of the pandemic. Some even posted attendance figures in line with those of previous years. 

If there was concern among these institutions about the city’s appetite to return after months of restrictions, the holiday surely brought some hope. “This was by far the highest weekend attendance that we’ve seen since our August 2020 reopening,” a representative from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) said, noting that the institution, now operating at full capacity, saw 9,000 visitors on Saturday and Sunday. That figure is actually higher than what MoMA registered on Memorial Day 2019.

For its part, the Metropolitan Museum of Art welcomed more than 10,000 visitors on each of the holiday weekend’s three days, a spokesperson told Artnet News. Those are the highest numbers the institution has logged since the lockdown in March 2020, and roughly double that of those just two months ago. 

“With the visitor and security teams stepping up to meet the increased demand,” the spokesperson said, “great joy was had by our visitors on a very rainy weekend.” 

The Met is currently operating at half capacity, but due to the size of the museum, that doesn’t actually have a significant impact on ticket numbers, the rep explained. Still, these tallies represent just half of what the institution—one of the city’s biggest tourist destinations—would pull in before the crisis. 

Shirts hang in the gift shop of the newly reopened Whitney Museum of American Art on September 03, 2020 in New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Shirts hang in the gift shop of the newly reopened Whitney Museum of American Art on September 03, 2020 in New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that, starting May 19, museums, among other venues, could once again operate at full capacity, so long as visitors had space to maintain social-distancing protocols. Few institutions in the city have embraced the opportunity as fully as MoMA—yet attendance milestones were nevertheless commonplace over the weekend.

The Whitney Museum (operating at 50 percent capacity) brought in 9,000 guests, which was among its highest weekend totals in the pandemic, a representative said. Meanwhile, ticket sales at the Jewish Museum (at 35 percent capacity) were double what they were weeks ago. “With the strong showing for the museum over Memorial Day weekend, and as more people are vaccinated and feel comfortable visiting museums again, we are hopeful attendance will continue to increase,” a representative for the museum said in a statement.

Over the weekend, the New Museum also scored its highest two-day attendance total since reopening in September 2020. Notably, the institution’s “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” exhibition, curated by the late Okwui Enwezor, has regularly garnered figures that rival “pre-pandemic attendance levels” since opening in February, a spokesperson said—and that’s with the site operating at an unspecified “reduced” capacity. “The [museum] has been humbled by the response.”

Good vibes aside, these blue-chip institutions in New York are of course not representative of the larger landscape of American museums, especially on the issue of visitorship. A survey released this week by the American Alliance of Museums found that, on average, venues are registering just 41 percent of pre-pandemic attendance numbers. Nearly one-third of museums across the country have yet to reopen at all.

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